With the pandemic making some people uncomfortable dining inside, many restaurants increased their outdoor seating as a way to keep their business afloat. Now, with colder weather on the horizon, those businesses are scrambling to find ways to keep outdoor seating feasible for as long as possible.
At Caffé Gelato on Main Street, owner Ryan German invested in 16 propane heaters designed to keep patrons warm and toasty well into November and December.
“Someone can sit out in 45-degree weather and sit under this, and it feels like 70 degrees,” German said.
On Wednesday, County Executive Matt Meyer visited Caffé Gelato to announce a $300,000 grant program to help restaurants winterize their outdoor seating areas. Funded by money from the federal CARES Act stimulus bill, the program will give New Castle County restaurants up to $5,000 for the purchase of heaters, tents, chairs, tables and other items.
“When our community was locked inside in March, we learned to quarantine and we learned to take extreme measures to keep safe,” Meyer said. “What we're learning now is how to be resilient, how to be safe and how to prioritize public health while we continue our lives and while we keep it a functional economy.”
The program, which has enough funding to assist at least 60 restaurants, will be administered by the Wilmington-based nonprofit Committee of 100. Businesses can apply at www.committeeof100.com.
“I really want to encourage everybody to continue to go out and patronize your favorite restaurants,” said Jennifer Kmiec, executive director of the Committee of 100. “We want to make sure that they're all still here and viable once Delaware is able to safely fully open again.”
German said the heaters cost around $300 and are in high demand, so he’s working with distributors to make sure all the restaurants in downtown Newark are able to buy some. The grant program will help with that goal, he said.
“I know federal CARES Act money can go to a lot of different places, so for the county executive to earmark it toward small business here in the county and for council to go ahead and approve that last night, it's tremendously important,” he said.
Caffé Gelato is one of several restaurants on Main Street that took advantage of an emergency ordinance passed by the city that allowed them to increase their outdoor seating during the pandemic. German expanded the existing patio onto the sidewalk, and used plants, statues and lights to create a festive ambiance.
Every Wednesday, outdoor seating is expanded even more when the city shuts down the street for the weekly Main Street Alfresco event, and restaurants set up tables in the street from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Citing the success of the program and the grant program for heaters, city council recently added more dates to the Alfresco program, which will now run through the first week of December. The final night will feature a visit from Santa Claus.
German said that on an Alfresco night, as many as 150 people dine outside Caffé Gelato, bringing in nearly $3,000 above normal and giving 25 employees an opportunity to work.
“We have servers on those Wednesday nights that are making $200 in tips,” he said. “That’s a big deal for them.”